The emotional bonds you form with other people are essential to your mental health. Healing from relationships that hurt you can make a difference.
Attachment refers to the connections and relationships you hold with others. The quality of these bonds is often a result of the early relationships you had with your primary caregivers.
Understanding whether or not your attachment style is unhealthy can help you start your healing path toward stronger and more fulfilling relationships.
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed attachment theory in the 1950s. The theory explores the relationship between the bond you formed with your first caregivers and how it affects your relationships throughout life.
In sum, attachment theory says that if you had a secure and safe relationship as a baby with your parents, you’ll tend to form secure relationships with everyone else.
If, on the hand, your caregivers were not reliable or did not attend appropriately to your needs as a baby, you might tend to establish anxious or avoidant relationships as an adult.
Alternatively, you can also form attachments to objects. These attachment objects can play a role in how safe you feel. For example, a security blanket can help a toddler feel comforted and secure in the absence of a caregiver. As an adult, you could form an attachment to food for the same reason.
You could form these attachments to objects as a way to avoid certain emotions or feelings. When this is the case, this is considered an unhealthy object attachment.
General signs of an unhealthy attachment include:
- using a relationship, object, or job to define your sense of worth
- relying on others for approval
- having a hard time imagining life without the other person or without an object
- neglecting your basic needs to prioritize someone else’s
When you have developed an anxious attachment style, you may tend to show these signs in relationships:
- feeling or being perceived as needy
- codependency tendencies
- tendency to act in jealous ways
- difficulty managing alone time or not being in a romantic relationship
- feeling unworthy of being loved
- fear of emotional and physical abandonment
- difficulty trusting others
- constantly looking for reassurance and validation
When you have an avoidant attachment, you will tend to show these signs in relationships:
If you feel you tend to form unhealthy attachments, consider these tips to help you work on yourself:
1. Identifying your attachment style
To be more specific in your healing journey, try to identify your attachment style first.
This will help you become more aware of which thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are unhealthy.
Try to explore instances where you’ve attached your self-worth to people, jobs, material objects, or something else.
Consider writing examples of unhealthy relationships you’ve held and how they’ve affected you.
2. Starting therapy
Working with a therapist can provide you with actionable strategies for changing your attachment style and forming more secure relationships.
A mental health professional can also help you understand the root of your tendency to form unhealthy attachments, and how that’s affected your life as an adult.
Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) has been found effective when working on unhealthy attachment styles.
3. Focusing on self-discovery and growth
Taking time to explore your values, needs, and beliefs can help you define yourself outside of your relationship.
Developing self-respect and awareness can support your healing process.
These exercises can help you power your self-discovery journey:
If you’re in a significant relationship, whether it’s a romantic partnership, family relation, or friendship, and you believe it’s worth exploring how you relate to each other, these tips may help:
1. Identifying each person’s attachment style
Consider starting again by identifying each of your attachment styles and how they become evident in the way you relate to each other.
Try to discuss the differences, if any, in how you navigate significant bonds and what you expect of each other.
2. Seeking professional support
Couples or family therapy can be a great tool when exploring the dynamics of a relationship.
A mental health professional can help you express how you feel, identify those behaviors that may be hurting one or both people, and develop skills to manage these challenges.
3. Improving communication
Open and honest communication is key in any relationship.
By pledging to be fully present and openly communicate with the other person, you can address any challenges while feeling safe and supported. That’ll also help prevent endless arguments that damage the bond and may contribute to feelings of emotional insecurity.
Learning to express emotions in a constructive way may also become a useful resource for when things get heated.
4. Establishing boundaries
Working together to set boundaries in the relationship can help each person retain their sense of self while feeling safe when attending to their own needs.
Establishing boundaries may start with identifying those behaviors you won’t tolerate, and expressing how you feel about those to the other person.
5. Letting go
Sometimes, when you explore yourself and the relationship, you may find there are a few reasons the relationship has become unhealthy.
If you can’t find a way to manage or solve these dynamics, or one or both people are unwilling to change, the best next step might be ending the connection.
How do you know when it’s time to move on from an unhealthy attachment?
Consider these situations when trying to decide whether or not you want to continue working on the bond or you may be ready to let go:
- One or both people are unwilling to make positive changes.
- You’re in a relationship with a controlling partner who isn’t aware or is unwilling to explore solutions.
- One or both people’s needs go consistently unmet.
- Boundaries are persistently crossed or ignored.
- You experience physically or emotionally abusive behaviors.
- You’re systematically ignoring or neglecting your own needs and wants.
- Your efforts and support strategies aren’t working to heal the attachment.
The way you navigate your adult relationships is often related to the early bonds you formed with your caregivers.
If your guardians consistently cared for your needs as a baby, it’s likely you developed a healthy and secure attachment style.
If they, on the other hand, weren’t consistent with your care or didn’t respond to your emotional needs, you might have developed an anxious or avoidant attachment. These are considered unhealthy attachments because of the distress they may cause you.
But it’s possible to change attachment styles and heal or end those bonds that hurt you. It may start with self-awareness and continue with boundaries, self-care, and professional support.